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How a chef competed on ‘Top Chef’ after losing sense of taste to COVID-19

Jackson Kalb's COVID-19 diagnosis took him out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Top Chef - Season 19
Jackson Kalb on "Top Chef." David Moir / Bravo

“Top Chef” contestant Jackson Kalb joined the show’s 19th season with a pretty intense secret. Just before production started rolling, he’d contracted COVID-19. Worse, the side effects of the virus left him without every chef's most trusted ingredient: his taste buds. 

“I just woke up one day had a sip of coffee, and I was like, ‘whoa, this is weird, is my nose stuffed?” Kalb told TODAY Food in an interview, noting that up until then, all of his coronavirus symptoms had been relatively mild. “But my taste was completely (gone) like I could have (bitten) into an onion and not known, but it was an apple.”

Things didn’t get better. After about a week and a half, Kalb said that he started experiencing strange sensations on his tongue. He couldn’t decipher between sugar or agave, a prune or a strawberry. Salt gave his tongue a burning sensation, and the bold umami flavors of mushrooms and soy sauce tasted obscenely bitter. Still, he was determined to move forward. Where other contestants might have seen the setback as a reason to toss in the towel, Kalb, who also owns and operates Los Angeles restaurants Jame Enoteca and Ospi, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. 

Top Chef - Season 19
Jackson Kalb on "Top Chef."David Moir / Bravo

“The producers were like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool. If you don’t have COVID anymore, we don’t care about the taste or smell or whatever,’” Kalb said. “I think I realized that as far as TV value goes, that’s an attractive thing from a producer standpoint. It’s like ‘That makes it interesting.’ Whereas from my perspective, it’s like, 'That’s not interesting. That just sucks, and it’s kind of scary.’”

Though “Top Chef” producers were aware that Kalb was at an extreme disadvantage compared to the other contestants, the Los Angeles-based chef said he only told his fellow chefs he’d lost his sense of taste once he knew was about to be eliminated. 

On how he managed to create dish after dish that kept him in the running until the latest season’s 8th episode, Kalb said he relied on his memory of ingredients and the reactions of those around him.

Top Chef - Season 19
Evelyn Garcia, Jackson Kalb, Buddah Lo face the judges on "Top Chef."David Moir / Bravo

“I’ve realized throughout my career (that) when I’m developing recipes, I actually don’t taste them until I give it to someone else,” he said, pointing out that instead, he prefers to wait to see a big reaction from those trying out something he’s created. 

“If I get like the 10 out of 10, just the explosion you can see on someone’s face, their eyes light up. If I see that, then I’ll actually go back and taste,” he continued. “(Otherwise) usually when I’m developing recipes that kind of just go with what I think works. I don’t think it’s common, but I also don’t think it’s smart. I don’t think it’s a good thing. It’s just kind of what I do.” 

Top Chef - Season 19
Jackson Kalb prepares a meal on "Top Chef."David Moir / Bravo

Ultimately, as the show turned up the heat, Kalb was swept off the chopping block over his decision to serve the judges a family-style menu. Still, the show has left him with a pretty handy aftertaste. “I think as the season progressed, I just realized that my instincts were a little better than I thought they were,” he noted, adding that, for the most part, his sense of taste is more or less back to normal. 

“I would say it’s 100% back, but about two months ago, I thought it was 100% back,” the chef explained. “Things are still coming through. So I would say at least 90% now. It took about five months to really get there.”